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O’Hara/My Turn: Open doors?

Uncle Charlie Russell had his own breakfast routine, and included was a thorough viewing of the morning paper. The Recorder-Gazette was an afternoon paper in May of 1939, so I presume that it was his New York Times that was under discussion that day.

This 9-year-old girl was in fourth grade and was expected to pay attention, listen carefully and respond with questions and commentary. Aunt May, too, participated in this discussion. On this day, the subject was the S.S. St. Louis, a ship that had left Hamburg, Germany on the 13th of May, headed for Cuba with 1,000 German Jews on board. Kristallnacht, the night when Jewish businesses and other enterprises owned by Jews were destroyed, had taken place in November of 1938. It was a warning call for all Jews to realize their situation. The group awaiting passage on the St. Louis had successfully escaped the many traps of the Holocaust and many had taken circuitous routes in order to avoid the persecution which abounded throughout Germany under the Nazi regime.

Arriving in Cuba, their next stop — or so they understood — was to sail to Florida where they would disembark and become refugees in the United States. It was not to be.

After much conversation in Washington, D.C. and a great deal of consternation, Henry Morganthau Jr. was directed by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, to deny the Jewish refugees entry into the United States. The ship headed back to Europe; the passengers did not know what they would face upon return.

Fortunately, Belgium and Great Britain took these destitute individuals, although Belgium, too, was in a position to be taken by the German onslaught.

Why do I feel so strongly about this situation? Perhaps it is because in 1943, a soon-to-be dear friend came to this town to live with his uncle, a Jewish physician who had come to Greenfield in the early 1930 period to practice medicine. My friend’s family had been able to escape to England in that 1938-39 period and finally to the United States. He educated me in 1943 and through the ensuing decades, continued to impress upon me the humanity of each individual and the need to care. Seventy-one years later, we are still close friends.

Seventy-five years have passed since the St. Louis attempt to give refuge to those in need. Now we have another group of refugees fleeing persecution, danger, even death, at the hands of the government in charge of their country. They are much younger than those of 1939.

Mr. Webster describes a refugee as one who flees to a foreign country to escape danger or persecution. An immigrant is one who comes to a country that is not native to them for permanent residence. Since that definition has been around since 1623, I believe it to be accepted as correct.

We had refugees in 1939 and we turned our back. We have refugees, not immigrants, who have come to our country to seek asylum from persecution. Have we learned anything in seventy-five years?

Phyllis O’Hara is a Greenfield resident.

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